The Tea Party’s Misinformation Superhighway Runs Through Las Vegas

The Tea Party

I met Delaware Tea Party dynamo Christine O’Donnell in the “green room” set up for right-wing bloggers attending Americans for Prosperity’s “Right Online” conference at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas in late July. The free-market-loving, climate-change-denying group launched by Kansas oil billionaire David Koch in 2003 was about to open its Nevada office, and it flew in right-wing activists and candidates from around the country for one of its pre-election pep rally trainings aimed largely at defeating Senate Majority Harry Reid, the four-term senator from the state.

This pep rally focused on building online organizing skills, an area where, AfP staffers conceded, the left had a head start. Across town, skilled bloggers and online activists met at Netroots Nation, but the mix at Right Online, while it included seasoned bloggers, attracted a lot of retiree Tea Party activists seeking to refine their strategy beyond posting events on Meet Up and emailing around inflammatory claims generated from who-knows-what partisan shop producing misinformation.

O’Donnell generated a lot of misinformation about herself both before and during her campaign, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt her. Take that bit about tying Sen. Joe Biden in two Delaware counties when she ran against him in 2008 (which she mentioned to me to show she is electable). When challenged, she just smiles, backs down and says she never said it. It’s hard to say when lying about your credentials hurts you, but O’Donnell is far from the only politician to do so. Showing poise under pressure is more important for any politician than participating in the reality-based community amenable to fact checking. And her whole party operates far from the reality-based community when it claims that tax cuts on the rich will “grow” America out of its economic pit and build tax revenues that erase the deficit.

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But outright misinformation as opposed to economic delusion is rife in the Tea Party movement, and builds off misinformation found on stalwart rightist web sites like Townhall.com and WorldNetDaily.com or promoted by the rising tide of Fox television personality Glenn Beck. A slick recent email showing South Asian immigrants at a parade praying on Madison Avenue came with the breathless statement that Muslims have taken over America for Allah along with the utterly concocted detail that they pray every Friday in the center of Manhattan streets, in not one but two spots, because their mosques flow out the doors.

I encountered a year-old piece of misinformation that wouldn’t die from a local couple who operate a pottery studio in Las Vegas, who were rushing to attend the Americans for Prosperity campaign rally against Reid and other Democrats. Bob and Dot Donaghy moved to Nevada 15 years ago during boom times, and now were concerned that “Nevada is in trouble. We’re 50th in education, first in unemployment and foreclosures, 50th in getting money from the government.”

This last statistic from the Tax Foundation picks up on Reid not even doing what he says he is doing, which is bringing home the bacon or in this case, federal tax dollars to benefit Nevada. It’s not misinformation, just incomplete, a snapshot that shows anti-federal government, anti-tax activists that they are being ripped off. I heard it from Tea Partiers all over the state. But it’s more snake oil. To remain the lowest-taxed state in the union, Nevada doesn’t sign up for Medicaid and other federal matching options that would bring more money back in.

Bob went on to say, “We’re not socialist-type people and he [Reid] is. It’s really about fiscal responsibility, protecting our constitutional rights. The government needs to pay as we go, not put our children in debt. The Republicans like the Democrats have reached the point where they are entrenched politicians. Once they start receiving money over the years from lobbyists, they are no longer thinking about what’s best for the United States.”

Then Bob, who said he reads eight to ten papers a day, talked about Detroit, and the misinformation came into play. “You know Reid and Obama took over the auto industry – Chrysler and GM. If a dealership donated to the Democratic Party, they kept it. If a dealer donated to the Republican Party, they closed it. It’s backed up by multiple sources.”

And he’s right, about the sources that is. Right-wing bloggers led by Doug Ross promoted this idea in May 2009, Phyllis Schlafly picked up on it in her Townhall column and it was quickly and widely debunked, including by the conservative Heritage Foundation. (Media Matters does a nice summary of the right-wing promotion of the myth.) But the story won’t die because it encapsulates all the Tea Party fears – of a socialist big government that runs roughshod on small businesspeople like car dealers and the Donaghys themselves, a government that they think is destroying the economy of this country with its big spending and favoritism.

It felt like everyone I interviewed in Nevada’s bubbling conservative scene was a small businessperson or a retiree who had sold his or her business, and is now clinging to the lifeboat of their own enterprise so they won’t be tipped by the waves of the economic crisis and the grasping needs of government. Women said they were fighting for their children’s future by fighting against deficits that will destroy America. One went so far as to call Medicare and Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” that will collapse without even being dismantled. The Keynesian idea that there are times when the government must invest in the economy and jobs if the private sector is stuck – or even Alan Greenspan’s support for tax hikes to reduce the deficit – remain in the shadows, or are dismissed as “socialist” or class warfare. Embracing trickle-down economics like a life jacket, they saw cutting taxes as the only way to soothe the churning waters. And those who disagreed with them were un-American, enemies of the state.

I heard a Tea Party myth riffing on this theme from an educated professional’s wife that was a variant of the “Obama is an impostor” line – not “Obama is a Muslim,” but “Obama is a Communist.” Her proof was a story popularized by Beck that the Kansas-bred, Anglo grandparents who helped raise Obama “belonged to the communist view” because they attended a “little red church” during the 1950s. That’s a Unitarian church near Seattle that Obama’s grandparents and mother briefly attended before moving to Hawaii. It was tarred because of the “effects of McCarthyism,” as its current pastor put it to the Chicago Tribune. Based on little more than that, Beck has called Obama’s grandparents and mother Communists and un-American. The auto bailouts and health care reform are bringing that old anti-Communist politics to life as people reach back for a framework that fits their outrage. When O’Donnell calls Obama “anti-American,” as she did on Fox News after winning the primary, this is where she is coming from.

Lynn Harsh, of the conservative State Policy Network, told the Right Online audience in Las Vegas that when they blog, they have to be more careful to verify their sources. “If you are going to create change, it’s got to seem credible and safe,” she said. “And we need to do better there. We need to be a lot smarter.”

But she was speaking at a conference funded by the Koch oil fortune where climate-change deniers headlined a workshop. Does Harsh agree with Americans for Prosperity that scientists are manufacturing data about human generated climate change? Or does she keep mum about her disagreement to keep the climate-denying funders of the conference happy, a tradeoff conservatives have made throughout their movement, laying the groundwork for the mythology of the Tea Partiers.

In the 2008 presidential race, top establishment conservatives backing the McCain campaign slammed candidate Obama as a socialist and insinuated he was un-American as part of their partisan playbook. It was nothing Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh weren’t saying. They, thus, also paved the way for the revival of McCarthy-style politics that the Tea Party activists picked up on and are now turning against some of them. In Nevada, a coalition of Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters took over the Las Vegas and state party structures in a swirl of conspiratorial denunciation against the conservative GOP establishment.

“Most of us who left are indeed fiscal conservatives and ardent supporters of constitutional rights, so the ‘Marxist’ accusation is a reflection of the deep paranoia and delusion within the current CCRP leadership,” said the (very conservative) former chairman of the Las Vegas area Clark County Republican Party (CCRP) after he stepped down.

“If we have to purge the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) from power before we purge the fascists in power, so be it,” replied an unrepentant Tea Partier. He is, in the phrase of historian Richard Hofstadter, “in a spiritual wrestling match with minions of absolute evil.”

Back in the 1950s, old-style conservatives in the Republican Party felt shut out by the moderates who accepted the New Deal reforms of the 1930s regulating capitalism and providing modest aid for people tossed by harsh business cycles. That the New Deal asserted federal power over the states could mean only a loss of political sovereignty and American liberty. Feeling disenfranchised not just by Washington, but parts of their own party, the Republican right nurtured the McCarthy-bred universe of betrayal, suspicion and conspiracy in an effort to win back power. They failed, until the 1960s and the debacle of the Goldwater presidential campaign.

Today’s Tea Partiers inhabit a similar universe, but start out with the backing of important party insiders like Indiana Congressman Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and money-soaked political operatives like the anti-tax Club for Growth and Sal Russo, a former Reagan strategist who leads the PAC Tea Party Express. Like their McCarthy-era counterparts, the free marketers ally with conspiracy and hate mongering to win back power. Unlike the McCarthy-era, they have a mainstream television news network and Internet sites on their side. It is a dirty business. And other than quarantine – and articulating a clear, simple vision of our own – we are no more savvy about how to stop the fever than our predecessors in the 50s.